It's the fag-end of the world as we know it

Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art | Royal Academy, London
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The Independent Online

One thing is for sure about the new compendium of corporate schmoozing and individual chutzpah that Max Wigram has curated at Norman Rosenthal's Royal Academy of arrivistes: it has precious little beauty or horror in it, and there's nary an evocation of the apocalypse in sight. I like titles to have genuine force, and if I were in charge of titling this exhibition I'd dub it, "Fag-End: Some Butts Found in the Ashtray of Contemporary Conceptualism". This is the sub-Mannerism that has succeeded the Stoned (rather than High) Renaissance of 1997's "Sensation". There's a scrappy feel to the works on display here and a lack of unity in their presentation. I suppose it's a virtue that each artist has been assigned an entire room for his or her contribution, but I'm more inclined to feel that a little productive synergy could have been generated by placing them side by side.

One thing is for sure about the new compendium of corporate schmoozing and individual chutzpah that Max Wigram has curated at Norman Rosenthal's Royal Academy of arrivistes: it has precious little beauty or horror in it, and there's nary an evocation of the apocalypse in sight. I like titles to have genuine force, and if I were in charge of titling this exhibition I'd dub it, "Fag-End: Some Butts Found in the Ashtray of Contemporary Conceptualism". This is the sub-Mannerism that has succeeded the Stoned (rather than High) Renaissance of 1997's "Sensation". There's a scrappy feel to the works on display here and a lack of unity in their presentation. I suppose it's a virtue that each artist has been assigned an entire room for his or her contribution, but I'm more inclined to feel that a little productive synergy could have been generated by placing them side by side.

Richard Prince has the stairway, and has hung it with big canvases that blazon tired gag lines: "Room service send up a room". They say nothing to me. Gregor Schneider has the entrance to the exhibition and has fabricated a piece called Cellar, whereby the punters have to crawl in under a staircase and then manoeuvre their way down a musty corridor with a couple of dead-end vestibules leading off it, before debouching into the gallery. Here - what fun! - there's a video of Haus Ur, Schneider's artwork-cum-gaff in Germany, wherein Cellar derives from. I suppose the whole thing might be seen as evocative of Dahmer, West and other DIY serial killers - but it wasn't for me.

Luc Tuymans' paintings have a blanched, etiolated feel. Stretched but not framed, they're slapped against the walls as if they're left-behind daubs of the toshers who failed to finish the work in Schneider's Haus Ur. I can understand Tuymans' appeal - his work is wind-dried by sensibility, a winnowing away of modern glossy betrayal to leave only matt honesty - but I don't share it. Maurizio Cattelan's image of the Pope struck down by a meteorite is, indeed, a joke in dubious taste. It's a pity he didn't at least apply to Richard Prince for a caption.

Mariko Mori's Dream Temple is a wee pagoda of metal, glass and plastic. It looks a bit like a struck set from Space 1999, but of far greater workmanship. Pretty it may be - beautiful it ain't. If you like, you can don protective clothing, go inside, and watch video images that, apparently, "suggest pure consciousness and rebirth". Personally I'd rather take my clothing off to apprehend such. Mike Kelley's Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction No 1 is an installation derived from a high school year-book photograph of a play. Kelley has recreated the set, and then videoed two lookalikes performing a play of his own devising. It's pretty camp stuff; referring to a sculpture he's dubbed Tender Button, one of the actors plaints "It's the only sculpture I've ever felt compelled to make!" I say: don't give up the day job.

I quite liked Noble and Webster's The Undesirables, a big mound of trash, which in silhouette portrays the artists. But it didn't smell, and to have conveyed anything of how repugnant our throwaway culture is, it should've stunk to high heaven. Wolfgang Tillmans takes big, big photographs - so do lots of other people.

But the stand-out work in this exhibition is, natch, by a pop promo maker, Chris Cunningham. His flex is a beautiful and horrific depiction of a couple fucking and fighting. The images are lush but repugnant, the soundtrack by Richard James of Aphex Twin is pure, sacred tachycardia. I found it riveting and transforming - and would have happily spent the hour required to watch it through four times. What Cunningham's work displays beyond aesthetics and thought is a proper commitment to the highest of production values; something sadly lacking in the bricolage of the others.

But not Darren Almond, who has meticulously and faithfully replicated the bus shelters at contemporary Auschwitz; so, I suppose these are Holocaust bus shelters. How horrible. Like the Chapman Brothers' Hell this is a sideswipe at Holocaust Art rather than a true confrontation. The Chapmans' much-trumpeted work reminded me of Neopolitan percipe - those three-dimensional models of the Annunciation, the component parts of which can be purchased and put together by enthusiastic amateurs.

Hell might have had more impact if it were one large vista, rather than a series of discrete boxes you can look into. For on examining the myriad figurines, you see that this is a Nazi-on-Nazi holocaust, and what can that mean? Is it history as wish-fulfilment? Hardly very horrifying. There are the Chapmans' trademark Dr Moreau chimeras in amongst the self-slaughtering Huns, but the whole of this death camp-cum- Einsatzgruppe outing is taking place in a timeless instant. What disgusts us at a visceral level about the photographs of the real Holocaust is the emaciation of the victims - this went on over years.

The Chapmans' most famous work plagiarises a Goya drawing of the atrocity of warfare, which was captioned by the artist "I saw this". The brothers' problem is that all they've ever seen is the inside of a model shop. They should stick to satirising our ethical trivialisation of contemporary dilemmas about genetics, and leave the Holocaust to those who have seen it, if not in the flayed flesh, at least in their own soul and the souls of others.

Jeff Koons's work is as glib and ridiculous as he is - and that's saying something.

'Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art': Royal Academy, W1 (020 7300 8000), to 15 December

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